Special Investigation: In Ohio's jails 220 inmates have died in 4 years (2024)

More than a year ago, we set out to find out who is dying in custody of Ohio's local jails and why these deaths are happening.

The Cincinnati Enquirer, Columbus Dispatch and USA TODAY Network Ohio reviewed lawsuits, inspection reports, autopsies, obituaries, investigative documents, surveillance videos and other records related to what's happening inside Ohio's jails.

We interviewed more than 40 sheriffs, state officials, lawmakers, criminal justice experts, incarcerated people and family members. We toured multiple jails and filed more than 135 records requests.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction provided copies of inspection reports, jail standards and a spreadsheet of reported deaths. We tracked down coroner reports for nearly all 219 deaths that were reported to the state between January 2020 and December 2023.

The investigation took more than a year, largely due to delays in receiving public records. Some counties produced jail surveillance footage several months after they received our requests and only after prompting from our legal team.

It also took time to earn the trust of those who lost their loved ones behind bars. Many spoke up because they want changes in how jails operate so that other families don't experience the pain they're suffering.

[ Reporters with USA TODAY's network of Ohio newspapers spent a year investigating deaths in the county jails. Consider supporting their workwith a subscription.]

Dying Behind Bars: At least 220 people died in Ohio jails over 4 years

Special Investigation: In Ohio's jails 220 inmates have died in 4 years (1)

Across Ohio people are dying in local jails. Suicides, drug overdoses, detox and medical issues, on average, claim a life each week.

Why is this happening so frequently?

Read the full story.

Surveillance video shows how an autistic teen died after 10 terrifying hours in jail

Inside the Montgomery County Jail, guards taunted, belittled and threatened Isaiah Trammell, a 19-year-old who had autism spectrum disorder.

He repeatedly asked for help. He asked for his medications.

Trammell couldn’t calm himself. He banged his head on the cell door, howled and repeatedly screamed “Let me out!”

After banging his head into the wall four times, he fell to the ground. Instead of getting him help, guards strapped him in a restraining chair.

He eventually passed out and was taken to the hospital where he died.

His death was ruled a suicide. His mother wants that changed.

“His whole life he was treated differently from people. People are annoyed by him. People didn’t like him because he was different. But he kept going,” his mother Brandy Abner said.

Read the full story

Who is dying behind bars in Ohio jails?

Special Investigation: In Ohio's jails 220 inmates have died in 4 years (2)

Every year, dozens of Ohioans die in the custody of local jails. They lose their lives to suicide, drug overdoses, medical neglect, violence, accidents or other causes.

One man choked to death on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Another was strangled to death. Two inmates sucker punched a man, rendering him unconscious. In other cases, inmates or jailers provided opioids, which triggered fatal overdoses.

Read the full story.

Ohio jails house about 300,000 people a year. How does the system work?

Special Investigation: In Ohio's jails 220 inmates have died in 4 years (3)

On any given night, about 16,500 people are held in Ohio's 89 jails and jailers book about 300,000 people each year - though some of them may be booked in multiple times.

Jails are not the same as prisons. They are temporary holding facilities for people who are just arrested, awaiting court appearances, held pretrial on bonds or serving short-term sentences.

Elected county sheriffs run most of the 89 full-service jails in Ohio. A handful are operated by a regional board or by a city police department.

Read the full story.

2 people were sent to Ohio jails just miles apart. One received treatment. The other died

Special Investigation: In Ohio's jails 220 inmates have died in 4 years (4)

The difference between life and death for people arrested and sent to jail can be a matter of miles and county lines.

Ohio has 181 standards for full-service jails meant to ensure a minimum of care for inmates across the state. But a lack of enforcement and deference to local control mean conditions and treatment in a county jail ultimately come down to the priorities of the county sheriff.

For example, there is a stark divide between the approaches of the Butler County Corrections Center and Hamilton County Justice Center though the counties neighbor each other.

Read the full story.

Ohio's jails have long been de facto mental health hospitals. Now they look like them

Special Investigation: In Ohio's jails 220 inmates have died in 4 years (5)

Jails are overrun with people on drugs, struggling with mental illness and poor health. How are sheriffs handling the challenges?

Read the full story.

Activists call for investigation of Ohio jail after newspapers' special report

The Montgomery County Jail Coalition called for a state investigation into the county jail to examine problems highlighted in a year-long investigation into deaths in Ohio county jails.

Read the full story.

Families protest deaths of loved ones who died in Ohio jail

Special Investigation: In Ohio's jails 220 inmates have died in 4 years (6)

The families of Zach Marshall, Maggie Copeland and Candice Crose share an unwanted bond: their loved ones died in custody of the Richland County Jail.

About 20 people − friends and family members of those who died − gathered Monday at a Mansfield city park outside the jail to demand changes.

Read the fully story.

Gov. Mike DeWine: Jail deaths should be investigated by an outside agency, not sheriffs

Special Investigation: In Ohio's jails 220 inmates have died in 4 years (7)

Gov. Mike DeWine said every death in an county jail should be investigated by an outside agency, not the sheriff who runs the jail, andOhio needs to do more work to divert people with mental illness or drug addiction to treatment, rather than lockups.

"We know that our jails are generally not equipped to deal with people with addiction and ...they're not the ideal place for someone with a mental health problem," DeWine said Tuesday after publication of ayear-long investigationby the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer and USA Today Network Ohio.

Read the fully story here.

Database: Ohio Jail Deaths, 2020-2023

Ohio Politics Explained: Dying Behind Bars

Our team

USA TODAY Network Ohio bureau reporters Laura Bischoff and Erin Glynn anchored the reporting and writing. Bureau Chief Anthony Shoemaker, Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Dan Horn and Cincinnati Enquirer Senior News Director Jackie Borchardt edited the stories.

Cincinnati Enquirer Director of Photography Cara Owsley, Columbus Dispatch photographers Courtney Hergesheimer, Doral Chenoweth and Brooke LaValley and Enquirer photographers Albert Cesear, Phil Didion, Liz Dufour, and Kareem Elgazzar took photos and videos. Enquirer visual journalist Mike Nygeres produced graphics and an animated video. Dan Kadar and Keely Brown managed the digital presentation. Jason Bredehoeft designed the pages in today's newspaper.

Special Investigation: In Ohio's jails 220 inmates have died in 4 years (2024)
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